Newark, NJ – Damon Severson is now out of the picture in New Jersey. The Devils have five defensemen under contract, Kevin Bahl is a pending restricted free agent, and Ryan Graves is a pending unrestricted free agent. The former is reportedly engaged in preliminary talks to return to the Devils. The latter is unlikely to return as teams are calling GM Tom Fitzgerald to acquire his rights. New Jersey may turn to the free agent market and bring in a UFA stopgap defenseman in the short term to fill a need.
Many assume Simon Nemec is ready to make the leap to the NHL. After receiving top prospect honors in the American Hockey League and high praise from the Devils GM about a month ago, that very well may happen. However, there remains the chance that Nemec needs more seasoning at the AHL level.
Brendan Smith was quite adamant that he believes he can still play in an everyday role despite finding himself a healthy scratch late in the season and the playoffs. Although he’s a bit older, he remains open-minded that he can improve his game.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” Smith said. “But, I’m always trying to learn, always trying to get better. I think for me, where I’ll grow is mentally and I’ll try to keep getting better physically.”
“I think my game is still good, I think I can still play in this league, I think I help the team.”
The Devils could do worse than Smith. However, if he ends up as the seventh defenseman, the Devils are going to need a body in case Nemec isn’t ready. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-for-one trade in terms of a puck-moving defenseman, either, now that Luke Hughes is in the picture. So who is going to market that the Devils could sign short-term?
Gustafsson is an interesting case. The one-time 60-point defenseman can certainly replace Severson’s puck-moving abilities. The 31-year-old signed with the Washington Capitals in 2022-23. He certainly put himself back on the map collecting 42 points in 70 games.
The problem with Gustafsson is he’s a left-shot defenseman. The Devils left side is likely going to be made up of Dougie Hamilton, Hughes, and Bahl. However, Hughes has experience playing right-side defense, even as a left-shot. It could work if New Jersey is interested in bringing in another puck mover.
Gustafsson certainly proved he can still transition the puck up the ice. His 38 points before being traded to Toronto ranks him fourth overall among Capitals in terms of points and first among defensemen. He also led all Capitals defensemen in Corsi-for percentage and expected goals percentage until he was traded.
He’ll need a strong defensive partner and may pair well with John Marino to make up for any defensive deficits. Plus, playing on a team that is so heavy on puck possession such as the Devils should limit any deficits in Gustafssons game, anyway. His toolkit will help the Devils maintain their identity and push the puck forward, so long as he maintains his 2022-23 form.
The Seattle Kraken only have four defensemen under contract as of July 1st. They may want to bring the 28-year-old defenseman back. However, if he hits the open market, he’d be a good fit for New Jersey.
Soucy is a two-way defenseman that is responsible in all three zones. Some team in the NHL is likely willing to give him a contract for a bit more term than a year or two. However, he might be willing to sign short-term in New Jersey and hit the market again next season when the salary cap gets a significant increase.
Soucy is a left-shot defenseman, that has experience at both left and right defense. In addition to his two-way ability, his size makes him really appealing. Standing at 6-foot-5, 210 lbs, Soucy would add size to the Devils blueline, essentially replacing Graves if he’s out of the picture. As a versatile defenseman that can bring size, physicality, and handle the puck, he’s an appealing short-term option.
Schenn is an option that makes the most sense.
However, according to Rick Dhaliwal, the 33-year-old defenseman is seeking term. Contract negotiations are currently underway with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, it could be because term is the sticking point.
The Devils only have four defensemen signed to a contract past 2023-24. They could afford, at a low AAV, to give Schenn anywhere between one and three years. Schenn is certainly deserving of a pay bump, but that’s why signing Schenn to a one-year deal could make a ton of sense for New Jersey. As stated earlier, the cap is set to rise considerably next summer, so if he wants his big payday, it’s more likely to come then.
Schenn is another large option at 6-foot-2, 225 lbs. He won’t bring much to the Devils in terms of offense, but they have enough of that to go around. Schenn has the snarl in his game and the playoff experience that would be a welcomed addition to the Devils lineup. Not to mention, he won two Stanley Cups with Ondrej Palat.
Schenn isn’t an analytical darling by any means. In 70 total games in 2022-23, he’s on the negative side of CF% and xGF%. However, Schenn’s deployment has a lot to do with that, starting most of his shifts in the neutral and defensive zones. Partnering Schenn with a guy like Hughes on the blueline would do a lot for both defensemen. Schenn would certainly open up a lot of ice for Hughes to transition the puck. And Hughes would ensure the puck will exit the Devils zone. If Fitzgerald can make this one work, he’s a perfect stop-gap until Nemec is ready for a full-time role.
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